“We cannot be too guarded in our conduct,” whispered Clameran; “we must discover who he is before taking any further steps in this matter.”
Once more, Raoul tried to induce him to give up his project of marrying Madeleine.
“Never!” he exclaimed fiercely, “I will marry her or perish in the attempt!”
He thought that, now they were warned, the danger of being caught was lessened; when on his guard, few people could entrap so experienced and skilful a rogue.
Little did Clameran know that a man who was a hundred-fold more skilful than he was closely pursuing him.
Such are the facts that, with an almost incredible talent for investigation, had been collected and prepared by the stout man with the jovial face who had taken Prosper under his protection, M. Verduret.
Reaching Paris at nine o’clock in the evening, not by the Lyons road as he had said, but by the Orleans train, M. Verduret hurried up to the Archangel, where he found the cashier impatiently expecting him.
“You are about to hear some rich developments,” he said to Prosper, “and see how far back into the past one has to seek for the primary cause of a crime. All things are linked together and dependent upon each other in this world of ours. If Gaston de Clameran had not entered a little cafe at Tarascon to play a game of billiards twenty years ago, your money-safe would not have been robbed three weeks ago.
“Valentine de la Verberie is punished in 1866 for the murder committed for her sake in 1840. Nothing is neglected or forgotten, when stern Retribution asserts her sway. Listen.”
And he forthwith related all that he had discovered, referring, as he went along, to a voluminous manuscript which he had prepared, with many notes and authenticated proofs attached.
During the last week M. Verduret had not had twenty-four hours’ rest, but he bore no traces of fatigue. His iron muscles braved any amount of labor, and his elastic nature was too well tempered to give way beneath such pressure.
While any other man would have sunk exhausted in a chair, he stood up and described, with the enthusiasm and captivating animation peculiar to him, the minutest details and intricacies of the plot that he had devoted his whole energy to unravelling; personating every character he brought upon the scene to take part in the strange drama, so that his listener was bewildered and dazzled by his brilliant acting.
As Prosper listened to this narrative of events happening twenty years back, the secret conversations as minutely related as if overheard the moment they took place, it sounded more like a romance than a statement of plain facts.
All these ingenious explanations might be logical, but what foundation did they possess? Might they not be the dreams of an excited imagination?